COVID-19 cases confirmed at SW Minn. pork processing plant

The JBS Pork Plant
The JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn., in 2013. State health officials said Friday that at least 7 people associated with the plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News | File 2013

Updated: 5:45 p.m. | Posted: 11 a.m.

Workers at the massive JBS Pork processing plant in Worthington have tested positive for COVID-19, raising worries of community spread at one of southwestern Minnesota’s largest employers.

At least 30 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Worthington area now, and at least seven have ties to the plant. That number is expected to rise, Jan Malcolm, the state’s health commissioner, told reporters.

Health Department investigators are in Worthington and Nobles County now interviewing people who’ve been infected, hoping to identify anyone else who might have been exposed.

Officials have become increasingly concerned about southwestern Minnesota’s food industry during the pandemic, given the major outbreak of COVID-19 at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., near the Minnesota border.

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Some 700 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the Sioux Falls plant, and one of its workers has died. The plant was closed indefinitely on Sunday, after pressure from local officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the outbreak.

"There's a lot of movement across, back and forth, from South Dakota,” Gov. Tim Walz said Friday. “There's also a lot of family members that work in both plants, so there was a lot of ... cross-contamination that started to happen."

Despite the Sioux Falls outbreak, Walz said the situation in Worthington was different. JBS executives are working closely with state and local officials to respond, he said. The union representing more than 1,800 plant employees encouraged the company to slow operations and widen space between workers.

Walz said the JBS plant is still operating, and called it “a foundational piece of economic activity” in the region, and a crucial piece of the national food production system. He said his administration is also reaching out to other processing plants in the state.

“It's in our best interest ... to keep folks healthy, [and] it's in the best interest of the community to keep the plant in operation,” Walz said.

Officials across several southwestern Minnesota counties have been paying close attention to developments in South Dakota as they watch new cases grow in their own region. Many workers and families regularly cross the border. Minnehaha County, just across the border, now has more than 1,000 of South Dakota’s 1,300 positive cases.

Local health officials in Minnesota are watching that outbreak closely and working with local hospitals to prepare for a potential surge of the virus, said Carol Biren, public health director of Southwest Health & Human Services, which oversees Lincoln, Rock, Murray, Pipestone, Redwood and Lyon counties.

“I think we're prepared for additional cases as they'll come in,” she said.

In a Thursday night post on Facebook, Nobles County administrator Tom Johnson urged residents to take COVID-19 precautions seriously.

“Far too many people are falling short of what's needed across Nobles County,” he wrote, asking people to practice social distancing, wash their hands, refrain from touching their faces and check in on each other.

Worthington mayor Mike Kuhle said, since news of the outbreak in Sioux Falls broke, the city has been bracing itself for an outbreak at JBS.

"We thought it was inevitable," he said Friday. "You know, when you have that many people working in a plant that size ... You wonder about it.”

Kuhle said he is working with other local and state officials to respond to the pandemic. He said he hopes they can put the kind of precautions in place that keep workers safe and the plant, the city’s largest employer, running.

"We're going to be able to keep this plant running. I'm hopeful,” he said. “I'm praying to God that we can make this happen. But, at the end of the day, we have to be mindful of the health of all our residents."

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.